09/22/2010 07:34 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The School Lunch Milk Wars

The healthy eating objective pushed for school lunch programs is pitting mom against mom in schools that are eliminating chocolate and other flavored milks in favor of low-fat regular ordinary white milk. Even though chocolate milk is made with fat-free milk, its several teaspoons of sugar make it, in the minds of many parents, more of a dessert than a source of calcium, protein and vitamin D. They are happy to see it gone from the lunchroom, along with fruit drinks, soda, chips, and other non-nutritious lunchroom offerings.

On the other hand, there are parents whose children avoid milk and other dairy products except, perhaps, for ice cream. These parents view the school lunch chocolate milk as an effective way of getting their children to consume a food they otherwise might reject. For them, the consumption of calcium outweighs the few teaspoons of sugar, and they point out that the fat-free chocolate milk is certainly a better source of calcium than ice cream.

The opinion of those who must eat the school lunches was not mentioned in the various articles about keeping or eliminating chocolate milk and presumably other foods that used to be a traditional part of the school lunch program and now are relegated to the junk food category. I have access to the opinions of an extremely articulate 10-year, and I asked her about the chocolate milk policy at her public school. (Full disclosure necessitates my mentioning that this girl's mother taught her the difference between protein, carbohydrates and fats when she was starting pre-school, so her opinion might be biased toward nutritious food choices.)

I learned that her school compromises on the chocolate milk controversy. On Tuesdays and Thursdays chocolate milk is available and white milk is served on the other days. A parents' group pushed for the school to adopt a healthy eating policy in the lunchroom. About two years ago, according to my source, the traditional foods such as pizza, hotdogs, cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese were eliminated. A salad bar is available every day, along with soup during the fall and winter, and lean cuts of beef and grilled chicken have replaced the fatty hamburgers and hot dogs. A sweet dessert is served only on Mondays, but fruit is available every day.

Pizza, she told me, is served only as a reward when a class accomplishes an important goal so the kids might get it only once or twice a month. She went on to say that having healthy food made eating lunch "more of a time to socialize than simply to eat" (her words) because even though the food is good, it is not in the category of treat-type food. "We eat, talk and then if the weather is nice, go outside and play," she said. "No one thinks of the food at lunch as special. What is special is that we can stop working and talk to our friends."

I think she captured the intent of the school lunch program. It was, and still is, designed to nourish children, especially those whose meals at school--breakfast for some and lunch for many--represent opportunities to eat nutritious foods they might not get at home. It never was a substitute for McDonald's happy meals.

The opportunity for children to eat a nourishing and nutritious meal is not limited to children from households with limited incomes but extends to households in which the parents have limited time. When parents are working full time or the mom is busy car-pooling for hours in the afternoon, dinners at home may be lacking many of the food groups children (and grownups) ought to be eating. One of the food groups is dairy products, and the increasing incidence of age-related bone disease among women fifty and older may be testimony to their lack of calcium and vitamin D intake when they were in public school and beyond.

But what if the child won't consume the healthy foods, including the skim milk being offered? I asked my informant about that. In her school the children are encouraged to try the vegetables from the salad bar and to drink a small amount of milk. The kids are hungry, and since there is no junk food to be eaten eventually they do eat some of food that is served.

Are there any other solutions to nourishing children through publicly-funded programs? Many schools are introducing cooking classes so kids become familiar with foods that are not prepared in their homes. Some schools have gardens that produce some of the vegetables that end up on the lunch tray. Another strategy is to offer foods that have essential nutrients hidden among the ingredients and see what would happen. Would children who don't drink milk enjoy a smoothie made from low-fat yogurt or milk and fresh fruit? Would children who don't like vegetables eat them if they were served Chinese style with appropriate seasonings? Could a low-fat carrot muffin be made with lots of shredded carrots, raisins and yogurt for children who avoid all vegetables and milk products?

Moms have figured out how to make dishes that contain nutrients their children and/or their spouses would avoid if they knew what they were eating. Tomato sauce, for example, is a wonderful vehicle for hiding protein and vegetables. So rather than moms fighting over chocolate or white milk, let them get together and figure out how the school lunches can make sure that all the kids will eat the nutrients they need, even when they really resist doing so.

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